Introduction, or: What the heck is going on?

I'm trying to think about why I'm feeling weirdly unresolved and intellectually uncomfortable about the piano lesson I had this week, and why I like it. The last part is easy: it's the sort of productive discomfort I've come to associate with leaps of understanding, actual rearrangement of my mental models of the world, not just practice/internalizing/building-upon what I already understand.

The question is why the stuff we did this lesson in particular got me into this state; lessons with Kevin generally do this, and I love it, but let's use this a case study to focus. And then there are two questions after that - the first is how I ride this particular wave and make sense of this mental rearrangement and come out the other side without wimping out and pulling out of it because it makes me intellectually uncomfortable. I should relax because I understand things differently, not because I've given up on it. If I ride this out well, then the second question is how I can make this learning discomfort cycle happen again and again and again - right now in piano, but also in other disciplines I love.

I've tried to do this case-study/generalization of my learning process with other disciplines over the years - yay spiral learning! I'd also like to point out that I'm channelling my vague understanding of Piaget right now. I think it was Piaget who originated the (delightfully cyclical/meta) mental model of learning as either adding to or replacing mental models, but this also has overtones of Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" and... oh, anyway, wherever that idea came from, I'm using it to try to make sense of what my brain is doing. (Argh. My education knowledge - vocabulary, history, how to phrase and frame things, everything - is sorely lacking. Chalk another one up for the "want grad school!" pile. But I digress.)

Now that I've turned a piano lesson into a (clumsily-stated) education problem, let's begin. I'm first going to think/read/listen to my recordings and notes to build a picture of the material we covered and how we covered it - where I was, new stuff I learned, why I'im confused, and then what I'm going to do about it. Some things here may not make sense to non-musicians - please ask for clarifications if you're curious, and I'll elaborate.

Where I was

I proudly showed Kevin that, after a protracted battle, I'd gotten "Someday my prince will come" to the point where I could fluently solo with arpeggios and chords on my right hand through the piece while playing shell voicings with my left. I'm also usually over-reliant on sheet music, so the fact that I could do this from memory was also a big deal for me. Something previously impossibly difficult for me to do had become so easy that I was getting bored while doing it. The piece sounded right. It made sense. Win! We agreed this piece was doing well and that we'd come back and add new things to it later in the lesson.

Then I played "Well You Needn't" with shell voicings (Charleston rhythm) on the left and the head (melody) on the right. Comping was easy and comfortable. I'd also memorized this; it wasn't at the "have mastered to the point of boredom" level yet, but I could easily recover when I stumbled in a way that sounded good. This is a much harder piece for me because of the rapid chromatic progression of chords in the bridge - not technically difficult (when sightreading or competing in classical piano as a kid, I did especially well with quick, complex technical pieces; my fingers love fast), but understanding-difficult. I could blindly play notes at high speed, but that was it; the chord combinations sounded weird to my ears, and I didn't know what else I could do with it other than straight sightreading of the melody.

This quickly became apparent when I tried to solo on "Well You Needn't." I could do a boring, rote, almost-memorized-and-predictable arpeggio solo that was essentially "I think I'll play the notes of the root chord in ascending order, every time, because I can't think of anything else to do!" I could also awkwardly and randomly hit notes on the F blues scale over my left hand's comping. In contrast, when soloing on "Take The A Train" with the blues scale, I feel like I'm fluently playing coherent licks. Same licks. Same scale. Different song - it's more apparent to me how the licks and solos can "fit" into that chord progression than on "Needn't."

Kevin also heard the random number generator in my attempts to solo (it was pretty painfully obvious) and suggested picking a consistent note to end on as a way to help me play phrases rather than one randomly selected note at a time. I realized that my approach to "Needn't" was robotic - I was feeding in rules, could only feed in rules, because I wasn't comfortable with the song itself. This sort of blind, scripted playing was (and is) my primary approach to music, and that's what I was trying to learn and grow beyond, so this was a "yeah, you haven't learned that yet" reminder. I'd try practicing the same thing for next time to see if it got any easier.

New stuff!

Okay. Back to "Someday." Let's see how quickly I can get thrown back into disequilibrium. It turns out that the answer is "very quickly." If, instead of arpeggios (1-3-5-7 intervals from the root) I'm told to play the first inversions up (3-5-7-9, sometimes flat 9) I suddenly get very confused and things sound wrong. I'm soon counting and pointing to the keys on every chord trying to figure out what notes I should be playing, and wincing because 3-5-7-9 is unfamiliar and my brain is going "These notes should not be played together! You've never heard it done before!" (I used to have similar feelings about major 7 chords. Then I got used to them, and now they sound wonderful.)

During the second run-through of the song, while Kevin is notating the chords I'm playing on staff paper so I don't have to laboriously work them out each time, I freeze the sounds of the intervals in my head and stop counting; I'm just playing by ear now. This goes somewhat more easily; it's faster for me to find "the next note should sound like this" than it is when I'm thinking of it as the dominant 7th for Bb. I realize that once I have the notes of what something "should sound like" in my head, I drop all the math, the intervals, the theory. Which is great! But it makes it more difficult for me to learn new things, because everything is something new to memorize; I don't have a more flexible system of being able to back-figure and analyze music.

While Kevin is writing the last few notes in, I finish playing and notice a Bach piece off to the side. It looks pretty, and I begin to easily sightread it. As I'm doing this, Kevin finishes writing and points out his notes on the Bach piece to me. Do I know what he's doing with this piece? I don't. It turns out that he's taking licks from Bach to use for when he plays jazz. "Cool," I say, imagining a Bach invention played with a jazz rhythm, or maybe a passage from Bach transposed and played over a jazz piece's chord transitions. Then Kevin plays the ending of "Someday" to show me, and now I'm awed and even more confused; it's none of the things I had imagined. There's something there that sounds like the Bach passage I'd just sightread, but I could not tell you how.

That was pretty much it. I got some new licks,

Why intellectual discomfort ensued

After some thinking on various buses and trains, and practicing more, I think I've figured out a first approximation of why I'm in disequilibrium now.

  • Jazz (in particular, the chords and combinations I just learned) still sounds unfamiliar, and therefore in some way "wrong," to me. Classical music sounds "right." I'm used to it.
  • I'm only playing scripted licks; I'm treating songs as if there was "invisible sheet music" behind the fake book, figuring that out, then playing that. Again, I'm treating jazz the same way I treat classical. Perhaps the equivalent would be dancing by doing move 1, then move 2, then move 3, rather than flowing them together and responding to the music and your partner.
  • Because I come with these (and other) assumptions about "how piano is played" from my years of rote classical, I don't know how to listen to music and take it apart - what's there to take apart? These are the notes you are "supposed" to play. I don't have a good grasp of the language I need to disassemble a piece (so I can later put it back together in my own way). This is the equivalent of doing surgery without names for your tools, procedures, or bits of anatomy. "Put the thing in the other thing. No, the big red thing! Now sort of move that thing like this!" I can't think about this, ask questions about it, because I don't have a way to express it.
  • In other words, "music theory and I are not well-acquainted."

This is great. I have full-blown "transistor syndrome" (my term from a paper written about the first circuits class ever taught at Olin*). I feel pain, I've made a first identification (here) of what that pain is - what I want that it's keeping me from getting - I have a workable first problem statement / bug report, and nowI'm extremely motivated to find a way to fix it.

I've looked at theory books before. They've always bored me to death. But now I have one (a Mark Levine book - he has some beautiful textbook-writing techniques I should learn from) and am devouring it with an intense interest because I want to talk about what's happening in a song I want to play so that I can understand it and play it better. Win!

*They told freshmen in the class of 2006, most with no electronics experience, to build pulse oximeters with the full knowledge that  they hadn't given them the necessary background (for instance, about transistors) to do so; the students struggled through and completed the project with great difficulty, their self-taught transistor knowledge visibly shaky. The professors marked the experiment as a success, because the outcome they wanted was for the students to want to know what a transistor was. The goal was motivation so that a more powerful learning experience could happen immediately afterwards. (I am not sure how they followed up and taught transistors a second time, though. I should find out.)

What I am going to do about it

I have a theory book now, and every time I get confused while playing through a piece, I'm looking through that book for ways to express the things that are going on so I can ask Kevin about them. That's pretty general, so some exercises I made up for myself that I'm trying to work through before Thursday:

  • Classical music sounds "normal" to me, right? So I can start from that. Take a simple, short classical piece with a clear chord progression that I know ad nauseam and write it up in fake sheet style. I'm thinking the Moonlight Sonata might be a good first starter, since everyone knows it.
  • By happenstance, I found that one of Melanie's piano books has sheet music for "Someday my prince will come," but that it uses a slightly different chord progressions and some interesting harmonies - all explicitly written out. It's also in a different key. I started transposing it and picking it apart. I want to complete a first analysis - which is going to be incomplete and terrible - so I can get feedback on it. More importantly, to balance out my theory-head tendencies, I'm trying to put the stuff I'm figuring out into my own playing of the piece.
  • I could think of more, but that's a lot for Thursday especially on top of learning all my new stuff for the week.

Later on, I'm considering getting ear training books and working through them. This will make me faster at transcribing. I should also try transcribing and then comparing that to transcription books at first to see how close I've gotten. Before I try that, though, I want jazz to sound "less weird" to me, so I should try to listen to it even more, so it may be worthwhile looking into an online music subscription so I can easily pull up lots of recordings of a piece I'm interested in, depending on how easy it is for me to find things at the library (so far, not very).

Now what?

Stay tuned for how that experiment works out and whether I come up with ways to generalize whatever I learn from it. Dun dun dunnnnnn!

This is a wonderfully painful process. I never want to learn something without thinking about how I am learning it again.